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Sir John Jackson

(1851-1919), Civil engineer, engineering contractor and politician

Sitter in 3 portraits

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Sir John Jackson ('Men of the Day. No. 1191.

Sir John Jackson ('Men of the Day. No. 1191. "Docks and Harbours."')

by Sir Leslie Ward
chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair 29 September 1909
NPG D45508


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Chris L

05 June 2022, 09:57

In 1897, the Royal Naval base at Keyham was being enlarged. Sir John made the decision that shingle should be taken from the beach at Hallsands and be used as a building material for the new works.
When the dredging started, in 1897, Hallsands was a thriving village of 150, living directly or indirectly off fishing with their own pub, post office and shop.
By 1918 Hallsands was uninhabitable after beach levels plummeted by more than 15 feet leaving the village vulnerable to south westerly storms which undermined homes and battered them into ruins after the stormy night of January 26, 1917.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Sir John's firm tendered for construction of British troop huts but, once again, his terms were less than specific. With controversy raging over whether or not he was profiteering, this was an emotive issue, as men at the front were always suspicious of anyone back home profiting from war work.
In January 1915, complaints were lodged with the War Office by the Marquess of Bath and three Justices of the Peace, all of an opinion that the work was "not adequate to the money paid".
Of the controversial dredging works at Hallsands, when the Public Accounts Committee learned of Sir John's "extortionate" payments they and the media had a field day.
Front pages carried the story, and although now a distinguished Member of the ruling coalition Sir John, feeling hugely insulted, wrote demanding an independent judicial inquiry be set up.
The inquiry found: "His (Sir John Jackson's) career as a successful contractor making large profits in work requiring large capital and with risks which unfortunately seem never in his case to have led to disaster, seems to have given him an altogether inflated idea of the market value of the services of his firm when rendered under different circumstances which involved no risk whatever."
Their report in 1918 brought Sir John's immediate resignation from the House of Commons.

John Spencer-Silver

08 October 2021, 17:35

Jackson was a Yorkshireman, described by "The Times" on his death, two years after Stoneman's photographs were taken, as "one of the greatest of the British engineers and contractors whose work in many parts of the world is typical of contemporary civilisation".

As a contractor of his time, Jackson was unusual. Though his silversmith father had died at York when he was eight, Jackson attended Edinburgh University as an engineering student. Most of his engineering contemporaries (except Robert Louis Stevenson, who switched careers) went on to become engineering consultants and employed engineers. But Jackson chose to be a contractor and his academic and technical training equipped him to deal with consultants and clients on equal terms.

As acknowledged in the Spy cartoon, his trademark was docks and harbours. He specialised in large works, often built at the point of confrontation between tidal water and dry land. For example, he built the tidal, Westernmost, stages of the Manchester Ship Canal, which connected with the Mersey Estuary, and also the foundations of Tower Bridge, in the tidal stream of the Thames. He built the Hindieh barrage, on what was initially dry land, immediately adjacent to the left bank of the Euphrates, near the site of Babylon, in Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq), where, tradition had it, the Garden of Eden had once been. The works entailed the permanent diversion of the River Euphrates, on completion of the barrage, so that the waters now flow through the barrage.

In 1895 Jackson was consulted by The Channel Bridge and Railway Company about building a bridge from two miles north of Dover to a point six miles south of Calais. He advised that the project was perfectly feasible but that he did not consider the advantage of a bridge would justify the expenditure of an estimated £52 million.

A lot of his work was done for HM and foreign governments and he was said to be on the brink of agreeing terms with the Tsar's government, to build a second Trans-Siberian railway, when World War I broke out. He carried out work for the governments of Spain, Austro-Hungary, Chile and the Ottoman Empire. His extensive links with foreign governments would also have set him apart from most of his contracting contemporaries.

Jackson appreciated the importance of photographs in his work. Many albums survive of photographs of his works, at various stages of completion. There are also many photographs of untouched terrain which would have served well, initially, to inform, when communicating from London with colleagues on site.

He died suddenly in 1919, aged 68.